The U.S. Should Focus on Asia: All of Asia

Washington's renewed attention to East Asia shouldn't come at the expense of the rest of the continent.
ximorsi.jpgHow Hwee Young/Reuters

If we put a map of the world on the wall and put red pins on the conflict zones that most threaten American security and tax its resources, and green pins where economic growth is fastest and the promise of wealth greatest, we would see a lot of red pins clustered in the Middle East and a lot of green pins dotting Asia. So it should not come as a surprise that President Obama made "pivoting" away from the Middle East and toward Asia the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He saw the writing on the map, so to speak, and decided that the future of America should be entwined with the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and China and not with the troubles of the Middle East.

The pivot's aim, on the face of it, is economic: boosting the amount of business that America does with Asia's booming economies, both investment and trade. Those plans, however, collide head-on with China's regional ambitions. The pivot, to succeed, must block China's hegemonic impulse and contain its rise in its own backyard. Containing China, therefore, thinks Washington, is the real strategic challenge facing America in the coming decades.

But this sort of thinking poses a false choice between the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. America is right to think that its rivalry with China will play out in Asia -- but Beijing and Washington have very different conceptions of what Asia is. America thinks of Asia as the arc from the Straits of Malacca to the Sea of Japan: the area from Myanmar to the east, or, in other words, the region we call Southeast Asia (Myanmar,Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) plus Northeast Asia (Japan, North Korea, South Korea). China, however, thinks of Asia as the entire vast landmass -- the world's largest both in area and population -- that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

On this larger playing field, China is expanding its reach, across the continent and toward Europe, pivoting west just as America is pivoting east. In China's view, the Middle East is integral to Asia's power politics, while America, with its shrunken conception of Asia, thinks of the Middle East as excess baggage in a Pacific-focused foreign policy.

America, which is reducing its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, believes it can afford to think this way. China, by contrast, must look to the rich oil and gas fields of Central Asia and the Middle East to keep its surging economy humming. As James Fallows puts it, "As fast as [China's] economy grows, its energy consumption grows faster still. Each percentage point increase in economic output leads to a more than proportional increase in demand for energy." China is the world's second-largest oil importer, behind only the United States. Its demand for oil will double again in the coming 15 years or so. Well before then, in 2020, China is projected to be importing 7.3 million barrels of crude a day -- half of Saudi Arabia's planned output. By that time, China will be the world's number one oil consumer, and its manic rate of urbanization is likely to keep it that way. In the next decade alone, the rise of new Chinese cities, according to a McKinsey report, "will account for around 20 percent of global energy consumption and up to one-quarter of growth in [global] oil demand." Two decades ago, China's large industrial and population centers lay almost exclusively along its east coast. That region remains a dynamo, but people and production -- and the hunger and thirst for energy -- are moving west. China now needs more and more energy for its middle and western regions.

China's scramble for Africa is being repeated in the Middle East.

China's fevered investing in west Asia is designed to create a sophisticated network of roads, railways and pipelines stretching home from the oil and gas fields of northern Iraq and Central Asia. Those land routes will complement the tanker fleets carrying oil and liquid natural gas across the Indian Ocean. There are plans for railway lines connecting Turkey to Pakistan and Iran, and pipelines running west over high mountain ranges into western China or to the port of Gwador, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea coast.

To facilitate all this, China is forging close economic ties with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Its trade with Persian Gulf monarchies, too, is on the rise. Persian Gulf sovereign funds are pouring investments into China while a growing number of Chinese businesses ply their trade in Cairo and Baghdad. So many Chinese businessmen now visit Irbil in Northern Iraq that local law firms are looking for Mandarin speakers. China is investing billions to buy access to markets and resources, but also to increase its political influence. China's scramble for Africa is being repeated in the Middle East.

China is naturally concerned about the security of its supply routes. Beijing sees American strategic relations with countries from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf as a noose that could choke China's access to energy. Indeed, in the run-up to World War Two, America, Britain, and the Netherlands did deny energy- and resource-poor Japan access to oil, rubber, and iron shipments from Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union cast hungry eyes on the Persian Gulf with the idea of doing something similar to the West. These lessons are not lost on China's strategic decision-makers. They believe access to energy will be at the heart of the next global rivalry -- the one between China and America --too.

Vali Nasr is the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of the new book The Dispensable Nation, from which this article is adapted.

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